Chamber Musician Today reviews Hilos

Gabriela Lena Frank’s work often draws on her multicultural heritage, with an emphasis on Latin American idioms. She is one of the most innovative and prolific composers of her generation. Her music has been commissioned and performed by a wide range of artists, including the Kronos Quartet, pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, and the King’s Singers, among many others, as she weaves together various cultures. This Naxos label disc featuring the virtuosity and soulful playing of the Alias Chamber Ensemble offers a unique musical adventure.

The story of pianist and composer, Gabriela Lena Frank, born in Berkeley, California in 1972 is a remarkable one. From her earliest childhood, she created stories at the piano, although it wasn’t until the age of four that it was discovered she had been born with a severe hearing impairment. While at the keyboard, Gabriela Lena Frank had been reacting to the “feel” of sound, as in vibrations. After being given hearing aids, Frank’s world changed. She, at once, became aware of the air itself as sound. Her piano teacher, Babette Salamon, recognized that not only was her talented pupil a musical story-teller, but she was endowed with perfect pitch and total musical recall. Frank could hear a composition one time, and immediately reproduce it at the keyboard.

Gabriela Lena Frank is dedicated to sharing her ethnic heritage through her compositions. Frank’s mother is a Peruvian of Chinese descent and her father, an American of Lithuanian-Jewish ancestry; her multi-cultural background provides the inspiration for her compositional work which has earned many prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Latin Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 2009.

Frank’s training included both conventional composition studies (with William Albright, Leslie Bassett, William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and Samuel Jones) and time spent in Peru exploring traditional Peruvian folk music. A self-described musical anthropologist, Frank seeks new ways of combining sounds and rhythm patterns to evoke indigenous life. Three of the four works on this disc are inspired by Frank’s own culture—Peruvian—while the fourth reflects the Spanish influence and its lasting imprint on Peru.

Hilos (Threads, 2010) is the most recent work in this program and was written specifically for the Nashville based Alias Chamber Ensemble. Scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, the eight short movements mix and match the players as if weaving together threads that reflect Peruvian textiles and culture. Each movement is a snapshot of everyday life. So vivid are the melodies and rhythms, skillfully performed here by the Alias Chamber Ensemble, that the spirited Afro-Peruvian dance—in a jaunty movement entitled “Zapatos de Chincha”—teases and exhilarates. In another snapshot,”Bombines”, the Bowler hats worn by mountain women are depicted as the “karnavalito” or South American dance rhythm, punctuates the movement. Swirling melodies of clarinet and piano intertwine to depict the “Zumbaliyu,” a children’s spinning toy. A gifted and dexterous pianist, Gabriela Lena Frank joins Alias violinist Zeneba Bowers, clarinetist Lee Levine and cellist Matt Walker for this riveting performance.

The second work featured on this disc, Danza de los Saqsampillos (Dance of the Saqsampillos, 2006, 2000) for marimba duo offers a dazzling display of virtuosity by percussionists Christopher Norton and Todd Kemp. The marimba instrument is popular all through Latin America and figures prominently in much of the popular music and folklore. This dance is inspired by the Peruvian “saqsampillo,” a rambunctious jungle-dweller. Surprising shifts in meter, common to many styles of Latin American music, infuse this work with playful energy.

Frank’s one movement Adagio para Amantani for cello and piano (2007) was written in homage to the island of Amantani. Situated in the middle of Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia, the island is both beautiful and desolate. Frank and Walker perform this poignant meditation with sensitivity and pathos. The cello lingers on sustained plaintive cries—often bursting into dissonant pleas— while the piano articulates repeated tremolo rhythms and flowing, arpeggiated chords; the result is an atmospheric and hauntingly beautiful work recalling the isolation and loneliness of the Amantani inhabitants.

Quijotadas (2007) for string quartet comprises five movements which take their inspiration from Cervantes’ tale of Don Quixote. The four intrepid players—Bowers, Walker, violinist Alison Gooding and violist Chris Farrell—join forces to perform this texturally varied and rhythmically pulsating score with all the quirkiness and gusto it demands. The music featured on this disc is a wonderful display of richly imaginative and innovative style by one of America’s most original and prolific composers.

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi